Without the leadership of the El Paso Community Foundation (EPCF) on major catalyst projects in El Paso, the city’s downtown would not be experiencing a renaissance. The Roderick Artspace Lofts, the Plaza Theatre restoration, and the El Paso Children’s Museum are all standout achievements serving the El Paso community — all led by the EPCF and supported by significant foundation funding. It is for this reason that the EPCF is the 2022 recipient of the Texas Society of Architects’ Cornerstone Award. The award, which was created in 1999, celebrates outstanding contributions to architecture and the arts that enhance quality of life, promote community life, and/or preserve the natural environment. The Cornerstone Award is the organization’s most prestigious recognition of non-architects.
Established in 1977, the EPCF has a long history of fostering and modeling philanthropy focused on the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-Southern New Mexico area. The foundation’s mission is to engage local people in charitable giving and community projects to improve overall well-being in the area through investment in education, health, economic development, and quality of life. According to EPCF CEO Eric Pearson, “The foundation spends about $15-20 million annually to support goals across state and international borders and across a large spectrum of leadership activities and grants.”
The nomination presented to the TxA Honor Awards Committee noted: “The El Paso Community Foundation has been a critical driving force behind architectural projects that have contributed and will contribute significantly to the built environment of El Paso. Recognizing that investment of private equity was necessary, the EPCF has specifically focused philanthropic efforts on architectural projects that have provided cornerstones for spurring the revitalization of our downtown.”
Among its many contributions to the art, architecture, and built environment of the region, in 1986 the foundation bought the historic Plaza Theatre in downtown El Paso to prevent it from being demolished. A National Historic building built in 1930 in the Spanish Revival architectural style, the theater is the city’s most well-known landmark, bringing together filmmakers, musicians, and other performance artists and art lovers from all around the world to downtown El Paso. Under Pearson’s leadership, the restoration was brought to completion in 2006. “Many of our projects have been in the restoration space, in part because of the will of our community,” he says.
The Roderick Artspace Lofts — jointly designed by ASA Architects, In*Situ Architecture, and HHL Architects — is another major project in which the EPCF has had significant involvement. With affordable live-work spaces for artists, the lofts are funded by Low-Income Housing Tax Credit funds through the Department of Housing and Community Affairs together with private donations. In partnership with local community organizers and benefactors, the EPCF developed 51 affordable one- and two-bedroom live-work spaces for artists on the upper floors, in addition to 7,500 square feet of commercial and multipurpose spaces for creative businesses on the ground level. This mixed-use project is the first major ground-up building constructed in El Paso’s downtown in 40 years.
The Foundation is currently leading the El Paso Children’s Museum project — with the building designed by Snøhetta, an international design firm, partnering with local company Exigo Architecture. The opening of the museum, to be known as La Nube (Spanish for “the cloud”), is planned for 2023 with a mission of becoming home to a children’s museum that is both undeniably world class and accessible to all El Pasoans. The vision is for a bilingual, immersive, and interactive learning center for families and people of all ages.
According to William Helm, AIA, 2022 TxA Conference Committee chair and president-elect of the AIA El Paso chapter, “Each of these very different project types located within downtown serve as critical projects that have stimulated the renaissance of downtown and have contributed to its momentum in an upward trajectory.”
The EPCF is the first organization ever to receive the Cornerstone Award. The foundation and its members believe that the award is a gesture of pride and honor that recognizes El Paso for this 15-year renaissance. Pearson says: “This is a vibrant, dynamic region unlike any place in the world. We are very appreciative that TxA can recognize a small part of what our community has to offer.”
Recent recipients of the Cornerstone Award include Graciela Sanchez, recognized in 2021 for her work at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center to preserve significant landmarks for San Antonio’s Westside Hispanic community; Robert Decherd, recognized in 2020 for his sustained and significant contributions to enhancing quality of life in Dallas and Texas; and Minnette Boesel, recognized in 2019 for her leadership in enhancing the built environment of Houston over a period of decades. The Cornerstone Award was presented to the ECPF at TxA’s 83rd Annual Conference and Design Expo, which was held in El Paso in late October.
Mahyar Hadighi is the director of historic preservation and design at Texas Tech University.